One of my fondest memories from Red Dead Redemption 2 is from my first play session with it, almost four months ago. It was just past midnight, and I had no earthly idea where my horse had run off to. Hoping not to lose my way in the wilderness, I kept close to the train tracks outside Valentine. It’s there I noticed something hanging in the support beams beneath—a body, crucified and missing a head.
After a quick investigation, one thing became clear: this was the start of a tantalizing side-quest chain told mostly through maps, crime scenes, and environmental clues. No waypoints or dialogue trees told me where to go next. I’d need to explore every inch of the world to find more bodies and clues. Had I not prodded around some dingy train tracks, I could’ve missed one of the most interesting threads of RDR2. But even then, once I had found the “starting point,” I wasn’t guaranteed to find the rest.
This thought gnawed at me through my next few sit-downs with RDR2. “Is the next victim over that hill? Perhaps in that small forest?” Surely I had missed it. And as stories and GIFs of the game spread across Twitter, I noticed other details I’d missed; snarky interactions in town, a happenstance passerby on the trail, or a harrowing homestead scenario.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is fun, but it’s gushing with content. Perhaps a vast chunk of that content is inconsequential, but the game also taps into an existential fear that haunts me in real life—the fear of missing out. With all its positives, RDR2 becomes a grotesque manifestation of my anxiety, weaved into a morbid Western setting.
Every waking moment in my final weeks of 2018 was a delicate balancing act of time. I had to go to work, deal with my commute, think about dinner, worry through the holidays, make time for friends and family, write articles as a freelancer, then play a game. The sheer thought of planning my week burned me out and flared my anxiety. Things began to drop. Some days I just put off writing, other days I wrote too much and ignored my friends. It never helped that my friends ended up having the time of their lives, or my fellow freelancers put out their best work. I was tapped into two very different worlds, and feeling that I was losing the best of both.
So when my to-do list was checked off and I kicked back with Red Dead Redemption 2, I wasn’t exactly open to the feeling that I was missing out there, too. I could use what little time I had to marathon the story beats, thereby missing loads of side content. I could piddle around in the woods, just waiting for Twitter to spoil the ending for me. The option I tried was to take my time, finding the silver lining in both. But again, I was surely missing something. There had to be a “proper way” to play this, one that I simply wasn’t seeing. And the thought of playing a game the “wrong way,” missing something crucial that made the experience worthwhile, chilled me to my core.
In the end, I had one choice left. I dropped Red Dead Redemption 2 around 15 hours in. Even then, it terrifies me; there’s an entire game I’m missing out on. Around every corner lurks another unread article or unheard Game of the Year discussion on why RDR2 is one of the greatest experiences of last year. In every Discord channel, in every Twitch chat, there’s a clamor that I can’t identify with. I can’t run away, in any sense of the phrase.
What scares me the most is that more and more games will balloon ever-outward into hundred-hour adventures with endless side stories. Last year I dropped RDR2, but what will it be next? Cyberpunk 2077, predictably. But then follows sequels to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Persona 5, two entities I immensely enjoyed during a separate epoch. Will I be too busy for those? Do I want to be?
Do my life goals ultimately line up to destroy the very enjoyment of having those goals? As it stands now, that’s the nature of humanity for me: being so consumed by so many good things at once that I’ve got time for none of them. A perpetual string of experiencing life, but missing out on detail after detail after detail. Things happen, but lose significance.
People enjoy these styles of games. There’s merit to that, and I don’t expect lengthy experiences to disintegrate. Nor do I want them to. I’d simply like to enjoy them the same way I used to, free from this fear of missing out. Perhaps one day I can return and find Red Dead Redemption 2’s serial killer. But first, I’ll need to stop killing my own focus by fantasizing about what I may be missing.